Volume II, Issue II Summer 2003

'The Exonerated' chills in tales of death row innocents

Review by Lucy Komisar

The Exonerated
Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

Directed by Bob Balaban

45 Bleecker Street at Lafayette
New York


This chilling indictment of state-sponsored violence against powerless Americans ought to be required viewing for every U.S. prosecutor, judge and jury.

As the characters in this very theatrical reading speak the dialogues of their inter-cut stories, a horrifying truth is dramatized. Poor people are in this country find the odds against them if they fall into the net of the law. Even when the penalty is death. If they're black and poor, it's worse.

Playwrights Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen – both actors – have made a major contribution to exposing that reality, and they're done it in a way that plumbs every gripping moment.

They chose six stories of innocent people who were on death row. Six people were exonerated. One was murdered by the state. The dramatizations, by a rotating group of actors, begin with the arrests, tell the stories of the victims' convictions and incarceration, and end with their exoneration and freedom. The actors play the victims and also the police, prosecutors, judges and lawyers. Under Bob Balaban's expert direction, the recounting is almost matter-of-fact, which underlines the horror.

The inter-cutting of text, which comes from public documents and interviews with the former prisoners, draws out the tensions and makes you aware of the similarities in their experiences.

The villains are frequently Southern sheriffs running for re-election or cops who need to "solve" a crime. Sometimes, they seem just emotionally driven to harass and frame victims. In a curious coincidence, given what we know about the Bushes' "devotion" to justice and the poor, most of the cases we hear about occurred in Texas and Florida.

Kerry Max Cook (played by an imperturbable Richard Dreyfuss) was found guilty of murdering a young woman. She lived in his Tyler, Texas, apartment complex, and his fingerprints were found on the doorframe by an "expert" who'd taken a correspondence course. The real murderer was the victim's boyfriend, a married professor, but the police never went after that "pillar of the community." In prison, Cook attempted suicide after other inmates carved "homosexual" on his body. After 22 years in prison, he went free after a DNA sample proved his innocence.

The Exonerated Sunny Jacobs (Ally Sheedy) and her common-law husband, Jessie Joseph Tafero, were sentenced to death after a killer plea-bargained and finger them for his crime. Walter Rhodes, whom Sunny knew slightly, was giving the couple and their two children a ride after Jesse's car broke down. Rhodes was in violation of parole, and when police stopped him, he shot two officers. Then he kidnapped Sunny and the kids, but was caught at a roadblock. Sunny and Jesse were arrested for murder along with the killer, who made a deal with the state attorney and accused the couple.

"They believed the ex-con," recalls Sunny matter-of-factly. "They just want confessions. True, false, who cares?" In 1979, Rhodes wrote the judge confessing that three years earlier he had shot the cop and that the assistant state attorney had coerced him to lie. But the recanting was suppressed. Jesse was electrocuted in 1990, 11 years after the killer's confession proved his innocence. Sunny describes how, in an ironic coda to the injustice, the execution malfunctioned: "Three jolts set his head aflame. Who murdered him?" she asked. The state of Florida. Sunny was released in 1992, 13 years after the proof of her innocence.

Gary Gauger (Richard Masur), an organic farmer accused of killing his parents in Illinois, had been tricked into giving interrogators a hypothetical account of how he could have killed them. Then the statement was used as a confession! Investigators learned that two members of a motorcycle gang had confessed. But prosecutors fought his appeal. Gauger advises people questioned by police investigating a crime, "Don't ever say anything. Don't ever make a statement. Don't trust them."

The Exonerated Delbert Tibbs (Charles Brown), a radical black seminary dropout who was hitchhiking across country, was picked up in Florida in the early '70s and accused of the rape of a white teenager and the murder of her boyfriend. There was no evidence; he didn't even look like the victim's description. A political defense campaign – including a song by Pete Seeger – got him a new trial, and his conviction was overturned. Tibbs, a poet, suggests how railroading of the guiltless happens: "People knew that a lot of folks were innocent. They don't want to jeopardize their jobs."

The evening focuses on six cases – out of 800 unjust death sentences the authors researched! As the performers, who play several roles, tell and act out the stories making you forget this is a staged reading and not a play with sets and costumes, your feeling of revulsion rises. How could police, prosecutors and judges be so evil as to destroy innocent families and lives? And why aren't the government officials – police, prosecutors, judges – who falsified or hid evidence prosecuted and put in jail?

One wonders how the victims survive the despair and brutality they have experienced. As if to answer that question, at the end of the performance, the audience was stunned when a man was called up from the first row. It was the real Kerry Max Cook, with his wife and child – they live in Texas – and everyone lined up to shake his hand and pay their respects.

A footnote: How are prosecutors reacting to the freeing of innocent death row prisoners? At least 132 inmates have been proven innocent and liberated from prison by DNA testing. But some states make it near impossible for prisoners to get DNA tests. And starting next month, victims of false prosecution in Florida will no longer be able to use DNA proof in appeals. A vindictive state legislature in 2001 set a two-year deadline for all DNA retesting of inmates now behind bars. So after October 1, if it's discovered that the police or district attorney hid evidence or fabricated an old case – well, that's too bad in Jeb Bush's America.

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